Monday, April 1, 2013

Family History by Newswire

Imagine waking up to read the news, and seeing an article about one of your own ancestors.

Well, that isn’t exactly the way it happened for me, but it was close. Instead of reading about a relative, thanks to a story carried by a news service like Associated Press, I got to read the same version of a story, over and over again, thanks to its distribution through a news syndicate similar to the organization we know today as Associated Press.

Such a scenario didn’t happen this morning—as I’m sure you, as a fellow family history researcher, realized—but happened thanks to the aggregate of historic newspaper collections frequented by genealogists.

When I do get the chance to wake up and head for my (historic) newspaper on my digital doorstep, I generally use search parameters to limit the number of hits that would tempt me to go off on bunny trails. That prevents me from pursuing those fascinating, “ooh, shiny” stories that have nothing to do with my genealogical goals.

Unfortunately, too-tightly-restricted search parameters also prevent me from discovering valid points about the relatives I am studying.

Case in point is the 1921 wedding story about Samuel W. Bean. Remember when I mentioned finding an article about Sam’s marriage to Maud Woodworth? The small, private ceremony took place in Oakland, California. For some reason, I happened to stumble upon a newspaper story reporting that occasion—in Syracuse, New York.

Finding that story was actually a fluke. Believing that “Samuel Bean” would be too common a name, when searching for any mention of my target person in historic newspaper sites, I generally limit my search to California newspapers. In some online collections—such as the California Digital Newspaper Collection—I further specify only the northern California newspapers, to avoid mentions of other Beans who might coincidentally have had the same name in a population center, say, the size of Los Angeles.

Of course, that eliminates the possibility that I’d find anything about our Sam Bean in any other parts of the country.

How I found that article about Sam and Maud in the Syracuse paper, I’ll never know. Thankfully, though—thanks to whatever form of serendipity it was—that discovery, and our subsequent conversation about the article in that post's comment section, got me to thinking.

So I went back to some of my favorite sites and took a second look. This time, I took the parameters blinders off, and let the “false” hits rain down on me.

For one thing, I noticed that the original article in the Syracuse paper was provided by what has generally been called a newswire. Newswires have had a history of their own in the world of journalism. I remember in my radio days, going to collect the items from the “feed” for the drive time newscast. Of course, those days are long since superseded by other forms of news delivery, but one relic of that bygone era still remains as a name you may recognize: the Associated Press.

In the case of Sam’s story, it was a competing news agency which delivered the story to far-flung places such as Syracuse, New York: the International News Service. Not surprisingly, the INS had a decidedly western perspective, having been founded by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Perhaps it was this California slant that opened the way for insignificant Sam Bean’s story to be broadcast around the nation.

It wasn’t, you see, just Syracuse which carried the story. I went back to both the and Old Fulton Post Cards websites to recreate the “Samuel W. Bean” search—this time minus the California limits. Apparently, Sam and Maud saw their story carried in other newspapers, too, such as the New Castle News and the (Brooklyn, New York) Daily Star—all under the byline of the International News Service.

Whether Sam and Maud also happened to have toured those areas for their speaking engagements, or stopped there while selling Sam’s books of poetry, I can’t yet say.

But I did learn the lesson to resist the urge to limit search results to only the geographic area which I knew they called home. Sometimes, the bigger story has more details than those I’ve already uncovered.


  1. Your blog is so *bad* for my genealogical productivity.... Each post is so well done, and so fascinating! And then I just have to click on one of the "You Might Like" posts. And then another. And then I have to read the befores and afters about that one, which leads to another, and.... You get the picture.
    "Bunny trail" doesn't even come close ;-)
    Thanks for what you do! I really enjoy it!

    Linda Schreiber

    1. Linda, your comment got me laughing out loud! Thanks for adding a smile to my afternoon...

  2. No kidding! So the INS had a western perspective. Huh! So the question "who writes history" resembles the question "who decides the news." This gets me wondering if the attempted killing of my grandfather got reported out of Sumter County, SC. Maybe I should look. And take the limits off! Kind of exciting, actually.

    1. Yes, Mariann, it is quite exciting. Hopefully, you will find something more about your story. Although, yes, it does depend on whether the newswires picked it up.

      You bring up an interesting observation in those parallel thoughts, "who decides the news" and "who writes history." It has always seemed to be a case in the realm of who calls the "shots," so to speak (sorry about that!).

      All up until now, that is. With the technology at our fingertips at this point, all of us are freed up to add to the news that gets out there. However, in the resultant cacophony, all we are doing is adding to the noise unless we light upon a way to escort others to the story we have to tell. It's no longer about who is pushing the news; it's about the pull.


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